In a few days, I will be publishing my annual Top Ten D&O Stories list for 2018. For now, though, I know that everyone is enjoying the holidays, and that right now no one really wants to be reading about insurance or the law. So instead, over the next few days I am going to be publishing a series of alternative Top Ten lists, starting with today’s list of Top Ten Places (That you Might Not Think of) to Visit.
First, a few preliminaries. There are some big obvious places that everybody wants to visit. No one needs me to tell them that, say, London, Paris, Vienna, Madrid, or Rome are great places to visit. So today’s the Top Ten list is a sort of an alternative list. This is a list of places you might not know about but that you really ought to visit. Without any further ado, here is my Top Ten List of Places to Visit, starting with number 10. (Please also see my list of Top Ten Urban Hikes, below)
10. Seoul: At first blush, Seoul might seem to be an odd choice for this list. It is one of the largest cities in the world by population. But despite its size and undeniable prominence I doubt it would make most people’s list of top places to visit. The fact is that Seoul is full of historical sites, great restaurants and street food, and interesting neighborhoods. And the best of all, there is a massive national park full of mountains and hiking trails right in the city.
The Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty are now largely restored and make for interesting exploration. The tree-lined Insadong neighborhood is lively and full of restaurants in the narrow side-alleys serving regional cuisine. The pedestrianized streets in the Myeongdong neighborhood are lined with stores and full of food vendors selling street food from food carts. The Bukhansan National Park, a beautiful area of forested mountains covering over thirty square miles that can be reached by city bus. (See more about the park in the second list, below). Seoul is an unexpectedly interesting place, well worth a visit. (My blog post about Seoul is here.)
9. Mostar: Mostar is the largest city in the Herzegovina province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is also one of the most colorful and interesting places I have ever visited. It sits astride the beautiful, naturally green-tinted Neretva River. The city’s streets and skyline reflect the city’s long history as part of the Ottoman Empire. The main shopping street has the feel of a Turkish bazaar. The river’s eastern shore is lined with mosque minarets.
The high point of Mostar is its famous Stari Most (the Old Bridge), which connects the city’s Muslim eastern side to its Catholic Croat west side. The bridge was completed in 1568, under the Ottomans. It is considered by many to be the preeminent piece of Balkan Islamic architecture. It was destroyed during the terrible war that wracked the country in the 1990s. The bridge, which was rebuilt after the war, now unites the river’s eastern Muslim side to its Catholic Croat side, although the divisions between the communities unfortunately remain. Mostar is a fascinating place — there are very few other places where history seems quite so raw and accessible. My blog post about Mostar is here.
8. Hobart: Located on the Derwent River and nestled beneath Mt. Wellington on the Australian island of Tasmania, Hobart is far, far away, but well worth the journey. Within the city, the Queen’s Domain, a rolling park full of woodlands and fields, includes the last of the island’s original endemic grasslands. A great bicycle path rolls along both sides of the river; the Tasman Bridge connects the city to the communities on the river’s far side. The bike trail on the opposite side goes through through the riverside communities of Rosny, Bellerive, and Howrah, affording breathtaking views back toward the city and the mountain behind. Hobart is about as far away as you can get but it is a great place to visit. Distant, calm, and beautiful. (My post about Hobart is here.)
7.Warsaw: Warsaw, Poland’s capital city, largely destroyed in WWII, is today a dynamic city full of life. Its historic, atmospheric Old Town has been painstakingly and stunningly restored. Although many remnants of the Soviet era remain, they are slowly being replaced. One of the city’s many unexpected features is that it is full of green space. Nowy Świat, the Royal Route, lined with shops, restaurants and cafés in restored neo-classical buildings, runs through the city’s historic district and connects the royal palaces. Along the way is the Łazienki Krowlewskie (Royal Baths) park, a wooded, 200-acre area that includes the baroque 17th century Palace on the Isle. There are also a number of interesting museums and memorials testifying to city’s terrible 20th century ordeals, including most notably the Warsaw Rising Museum, dedicated to the tragic Warsaw Rising of 1944. (My post about Warsaw is here.)
6. Oslo: Oslo, Norway’s capital city, is located at the northern end of Oslofjord. The city’s proximity to the mountains means that the Nordmarka recreational area can be reached on the city’s Tunnelbane (metro), affording great views of the fjord. In the city proper, the Det kongelige slott, built in the 19th century and now serving as the home of Norway’s present King Harald V and Queen Sonja, sits on a rise within the city center and looks eastward down Karl Johans gate, the central city’s main thoroughfare, toward the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament building. Along the harbor is the city’s most recognizable landmark, Akershus Festning, a 13th century fortress located on a headland within the harbor at the top of the fjord, and the new distinctive Opera House, built on the city’s harbor in a shape intended to be reminiscent of an ice berg. The views along the harbor are distinctive, and, as noted below, there are great places to hike in and around Oslo as well. There are a lot of great places to visit in Scandinavia, but Oslo is a great place to start. My posts about Oslo are here and here.
5. Budapest: Budapest is a big beautiful city full of Old World Europe charm. In his book, The Danube, a Cultural History, Andrew Beattie called Budapest “the loveliest and most elegant city on the Danube.” Budapest, Beattie writes, “takes the Danube to its heart.” In Budapest, the steep hills along the city’s west side “allow an appreciation of just how much the river seems to be cradled by the city.” It is as if the Danube is “flowing, steady and implacable, through a cupped hand.” Buda, on the city’s Western hilly side, and Pest, on the level eastern side, were for most of their history separate cities. The two formerly separate cities are now joined by numerous bridges.
The two most distinctive features on the Buda side are the historic Castle Hill, crowned by a reconstructed Habsburg era castle (now the national art gallery), and the taller, more rugged Gellért Hill, which affords a great view across to Pest. Across the river in Pest, the many beautiful pedestrianized streets in the central district are lined with cafes and restaurants, as well as innumerable souvenir shops selling stacking dolls and intricately embroidered lace tablecloths. In Pest, along the river north of the Chain Bridge, is the dramatic Hungarian Parliament building, possibly the most beautiful building on the entire river. Budapest, like the excellent Hungarian wine, is to be savored and enjoyed. My post about Budapest is here.
4. Ljubljana: Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, may not be familiar to many, so here’s what you need to know: Ljubljana is an absolute gem – compact and beautiful. Ljubljana has a great vibe, great wine, and interesting architecture. Ljubljana, my friends, is a seriously cool place. As seems to be the case with so many Eastern European capital cities, Ljubljana’s historic old town sits at the base of the a castle hill. The city’s current population is about 250,000, but Ljubljana feels smaller – it is a city that can be covered almost entirely on foot. It is in fact an extraordinarily pleasant city in which to walk around. The tree-lined river with promenades on either side winds through the old town. Casual strollers walk along the river, while others sit at sidewalk cafes and restaurants taking in the pleasant ambiance.
Much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1895, and many of the buildings in the New Town were rebuilt in an attractive Vienna Secession style. A generation later, the local architect Jože Plečnik, whose distinct style is virtually ubiquitous in Ljubljana, added a host of buildings, landmarks, and public works. On the opposite side of the city’s central district is Tivoli Park; Rožnik, an almost 1,300 foot wooded hill with hiking trails slopes upward behind the formal park. The woods on the hillside have a convincingly rustic feel, providing a little bit of a taste of Slovenia outside of the capital city’s confines. Ljubljana is a special place, one that you really don’t want to miss. My post about Ljubljana is here.
3. Auckland: Auckland is a beautifully situated and prosperous city located on New Zealand’s northern island. The city is built between two harbors — Waitemata Harbor to the north, which opens east to the Hauraki Gulf, and Manukau Harbor to the south, which opens west to the Tasman Sea. Thanks to changes in the country’s immigration laws, the face of the city has changed as well – Auckland has to be one of the most diverse cities on the planet. It has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world and a huge Asian and southeast Asian population as well.
Devonport, a pleasant seaside suburb with small shops, cafes and restaurants sits on the opposite side of Waitemata Harbor. Mt. Victoria, a nearly 300 ft. volcanic outcropping that affords great views back toward the city center as well as out beyond the harbor to Hauraki Gulf. A 45-minute ferry ride across Hauraki Gulf is Waiheke, a rugged 12-mile long island. Every turning and side road on Waiheke leads down to beautiful, shell-covered beaches. The beaches further away from the ferry landing are generally deserted, and each one seemingly more attractive than the one before. With all of these many natural advantages, Auckland is a get-away of a very unique and special kind. (My post about Auckland is here.)
2. Tallinn: The most important thing to know about Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is that its old town and historic city walls — including 26 watchtowers — are largely intact, making it one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. Within the walls, the city is full of Gothic-era houses, beautiful church towers, and graceful spires. The fortified areas and much of the city within have been mostly (although not entirely) refurbished. The streets of the old town are lined with excellent restaurants, shops, and cafes. Just five tram stops east of the old town is Kadriorg, a city park built from the pleasure gardens of the palace that the Russian Emperor Peter the Great built for his wife, Catherine. The palace now houses an art museum.
There are several excellent museums in Tallinn that help explain the country’s fascinating and complicated history, including in particular the Museum of Occupations, which explored the city’s occupation by the Russians and Germans between 1939 and 1991. Since 1991, the country has been transformed. The current atmosphere is overwhelmingly positive and forward-looking. Estonia joined the EU in 2004 and it adopted the Euro in 2011. Tallinn itself projects openness and dynamism. It is also a distinct and fascinating place to visit. My post about Tallinn is here.
1. Dubrovnik: We were fortunate enough to have the chance to visit Dubrovnik last Memorial Day weekend. Despite the crowds from the cruise ships in the city’s narrow streets, Dubrovnik is my new favorite place. It also may be the most photogenic city in the world. Dubrovnik is located on the Adriatic Sea, on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, only a few miles north of the border with Montenegro. To the city’s northwest, on a small peninsula, a separate fortress tower overlooks the walled city. Within the walls, the streets are narrow. Just offshore from Dubrovnik is the wooded island of Lokram. A walkway atop the city walls affords great views back into the city, toward Lokram, and out into the Adriatic Sea. A cable car leads up to the top of Mount Srđ with great views of the old town and of the island.
Lokrum is a 15-minute ferry ride from the city. A walkway winds around the island. On the island’s far side, there is a long rocky shingle where there were many swimmers and sunbathers. You can lower yourself into the Adriatic using one of the many ladders along the rocks. Back in the city, Gradac Park, located just to the west of the fortress, is a great place for a picnic on benches overlooking the sea. In the evening, you can watch darkness gather and the moon come up over the Adriatic. As night time falls, you can be sure that you have just spent the best day of touristing ever. My post about Dubrovnik is here.
Top Ten City Urban Walks: As might be discernible between the lines in my descriptions above, one of my favorite things to do in a new city is to walk around and explore, and there is nothing I enjoy more than a good hike. In that spirit, I have listed below my ten favorite urban hikes. To make this list, the hike must be interesting, afford interesting views, and be reasonably accessible from the center city. With those criteria in mind here is my list of top ten city hikes.
10. Freiburg: The German college town of Freiburg is located in the country’s southwest, near the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). The city is nestled at the base of the Schlossberg, a steep wooded hill that rises to the east of the town, providing sweeping views of the city below, the surrounding hills, and, far to the west, the Vosges Mountains. Deep in the woods are the remains of the ancient Schloss (castle). The city itself is great and worth a visit, but Freiburg also is worth visiting for the many hiking trails along the Schlossberg.
9. Howth (Dublin): About a 30-minute ride north of Dublin on the DASH commuter train is the atmospheric old port city of Howth (pronounced “Hoe(t)”). Above the city are rocky headlands overlooking the Irish Sea, affording views to north of the Eye of Ireland and to the south of Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains beyond. Best of all, when you finish hiking the trails through the headlands, you can head back to the village of Howth and have a Guiness in a seaside pub.
8. Lübeck: The venerable German port city of Lübeck is located on an island in the Trave River. A footpath winds along the riverside around the entire perimeter of the island. This is the kind of walking I enjoy most, with a changing series of interesting buildings and views providing a glimpse into the past and present life of an historic and interesting place. It is possible to walk around the island in a couple of hours, but there are so many detours and distractions that it took me quite a bit longer. An excellent way to spend an afternoon.
7. Suomenlinna (Helsinki): Just a short ferry ride from the Baltic city of Helsinki is the fortress island of Suomenlinna. There are a host of military installations on the island, some of them still in active use. A rugged pathway leads along the shoreline, affording great views out to the Gulf of Finland and back toward Helsinki. In the island’s interior, a network of pathways traverses meadows and rolls around ponds and woodlands. A sunny afternoon on the island is about as pleasant a way to spend a day as you will find anywhere.
6. Hamburg: Hamburg is a North Sea port city located on the Elbe River. In the city’s center are two man-made lakes, the smaller Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and the larger Außenalster (Outer Alster). A walkway runs around the two lakes. It takes about an hour and a quarter at a good clip to complete the 4.7 mile circuit around the larger of the two lakes. Between the lakes, and at the northern end of the smaller lake, are two side-by-side bridges, the Kennedybrücke to the north and Lombardsbrücke to the south. At the Southern end of the smaller lake is Hamburg’s famous street, Jungfernsteig. Along the way around the larger lake, there are great views of the city, of many interesting houses, and of life along the lakes. I really like Hamburg, for many reasons, but I think the top reason is how much I enjoy walking around the lakes.
5. Akersleva (Oslo): A footpath runs along the length of the Akerselva, a river that rolls downhill for about five miles from Lake Maridalsvannet, Oslo’s largest lake and its main source of drinking water, to the city center. In the 19thcentury, the river was the center of the city’s industrial activity, with mill buildings, textile factories, and mechanical workshops lining its banks. The structures, now mostly repurposed as galleries, offices, and schools, still stand, mostly congregated at the point where the river’s steep hillside descent forms rapids or waterfalls. The river pathway is now wooded and quiet, and in late spring the woods were full of flowering trees and birdsong.
4. Arthur’s Seat (Edinburgh): At the foot of the historic Royal Mile and looming above Holyrood Palace is the craggy peak known as Arthur’s Seat, the highest point among the rocky outcroppings of the Salisbury Crags. A series of trails leads to this rugged hillside’s peak. On a clear day, the view from Arthur’s Seat can seem almost limitless. To the east, the Firth of Forth stretches out to the North Sea. About twenty miles away, the soft, rolling beauty of the Pentland Hills frames the view to the southwest. To the north, Edinburgh castle soars about the city below.
3. Sintra (Lisbon): A short ride by commuter train outside Lisbon is the historic community of Sintra, home to several Portuguese royal palaces. In the village itself is the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, an interesting historic site. Above the village and palace, on the top of the adjacent mountainside, at the top of a steep pathway, is the Castelo dos Mouros, built in the 8th or 9th century by the Moors, later captured by Norse invaders, and ultimately taken by the Portuguese. The views from the vertiginous battlements are absolutely astonishing. Beyond that, and even further up along an even higher mountainside is the colorful and distinctive Pena Palace. The terraces of the Pena Palace afford terrific panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, of the ocean, and of Lisbon itself, more than 20 miles away. Hiking the hills in Sintra is a strenuous, demanding, all-day project, but it is also one of the all-time great tourist adventures.
2. Bondi to Coogee Walkway (Sydney): The beach community of Bondi (pronounced “BOND-eye”) is about a 15-minute cab ride from the Sydney central business district. Bondi Beach is itself a beautiful place; one of its great attractions is a coastal hike, the Bondi to Coogee Walk. The walk is a seaside trail that winds along the ocean shoreline. It is about 12 km (about 7.5 miles) round trip. There are great views of the ocean, of the various communities along the ocean front, and of the several small beaches between Bondi and Coogee. I am going to cheat on my top ten list here to add that there is another great coastal hike in Sydney (I just couldn’t decide which one to choose), the Manly to Spit Bridge Scenic Walk, a rugged trail that rolls along the shoreline of Sydney Harbor. The pathway is 20 km round trip (about 12.4 miles) and affords great views of the harbor coastline, of the Sydney Harbor entrance, and of the harbor section of the Sydney Harbour National Park. These two walks, separately or together, are among my favorite hikes anywhere.
1. Seoul: Bukhansan National Park, located inside Seoul’s city limits, is full of jagged mountains. The mountains are traversed by steep, stony trails. One rugged path leads basically straight uphill to a gate in the city’s ancient defensive wall, sections of which still run along the ridge-top. The hike to the top is about as demanding as I have attempted, at least as far as urban hikes go. There are several stretches that require scrambling on all fours. From the ridge-top, there are spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and of nearby Seoul itself. Beyond Seoul are ranks of successive mountain ranges, marching toward the distant horizon. A terrific hike and altogether a fabulous experience.